The Story of Betsy Doyle - A Woman of Courage and Strength War of 1812

Compiled by Bobbie Reno, East Greenbush Town Historian from research of Catherine Emerson, Niagara County Historian

Betsy Doyle was born around 1790. She is listed in few documents.  Those found so far, she has different given names of Betsy, Mary or Fannie.

Betsy’s husband, Andrew Doyle was born in St. David’s, Canada in 1788.  An interesting note regarding Andrew’s residency is found in a letter from Colonel Simon Larned to the Adjutant General in Washington, and appears as follows in a publication by Catherine Emerson titled An Industrious and Worthy Woman: The Chronicle of Betsy/Mary Doyle and Her Husband Andrew, “Mrs. Doyle, who lived near Niagara Fort, had her husband Andrew Doyle taken prisoner & sold to England being born in Canada but not residing there since he was 4 years old.”

As seen earlier, Andrew Doyle lived in Canada until about the time of his joining the 1st US Artillery in 1810.  Did the couple come up with this story to protect Andrew who might have otherwise been looked upon with suspicion as a scion of a Loyalist family?  One cannot help but wonder if he too, helped lead the Americans up the heights of Queenston.  His parents immigrated to the Burford/Blenheim area following the Revolution.  He probably wanted to keep very quiet about his Canadian origins, and with the fluidity of the border after the American Revolution, such a statement would not raise eyebrows.”

As stated, Andrew enlisted as a private in the First Regiment of United States Artillery, commanded by Colonel John Roger Fenwick at Fort Niagara on February 2, 1810 when tensions with Britain were heating up.

The date when Betsy and Andrew married is not known, However, the 1801 Standing Orders established for the United States Army, women accompanying the Army were required to be married to an enlisted man.  Betsy accompanied Andrew to Fort Niagara.  Betsy and Andrew had four children.  The names and fate of their children are unknown at this time.

Accompanying her husband to Fort Niagara, Betsy would have been put to work as a washerwoman or hospital matron, doing most likely the drudge work of cleaning soiled linen, cleaning rooms and preparing food.

In June of 1812 war was declared against Great Britain.  On October 13, 1812, the United States decided to invade Canada resulting in the Battle of Queenston

Andrew Doyle is Captured by the British

On the afternoon of October 12th, Andrew Doyle and 109 other members of the 1st US Artillery marched from Fort Niagara to Lewiston Landing to join the battle in Queenston. The next day on the 13th the Americans came up against the British Army and a fierce battle ensued.  Reinforcements failed to appear. This battle ended with the surrender of the Americans.  In all the British captured 436 US regulars and 489 militia.  The militia and “walking wounded” were paroled back to the American lines.  However, the British detained some men whom the British deemed “Subjects of the Crown.”  Andrew having been born in Canada was one of them.  These men were taken to Quebec and then aboard a British Man O War ship and sailed to England to stand trial as traitors to the Crown. 

Betsy, having no knowledge of her husband’s circumstances at this time, remained at Fort Niagara.

Betsy’s Heroism

On November 21, 1812 at 6:00pm the British stationed at Fort George opened fire with their batteries of guns and cannons on Fort Niagara.  Fort Niagara returned heavy fire.  Among the artillery barrage, the Americans on the rooftops of buildings in Fort Niagara fired “Hot Shot” from cannons.

What is Hot Shot? Hot Shot is non-explosive cannonballs heated red hot for the purpose of setting fire to enemy buildings, ships, or equipment.  The method used to serve the Hot Shot was to heat the shot in fire pits in the ground or in constructed ovens.  But loading hot shot was difficult and dangerous.  The hot iron could cause gunpowder to explode prematurely in the cannon, wounding or killing anyone nearby.

Betsy carried red-hot cannonballs from a fire to the 6-pound cannon mounted on the roof of the mess-hall.  Although one man was killed and five others wounded while loading hot shot, Betsy survived the barrage, and her bravery was mentioned in official reports.  The story of her actions spread quickly among officers stationed in the region.

Betsy’s Heroism is recorded in the Journal of Lt. Colonel George McFeely, Commander of Fort Niagara: One man was killed and four wounded from the bursting of one of our twelve pounders, this was occasioned by a hot ball which had expanded by the heat and got fast in the gun, where a vacuum was formed and when fired burst into ten thousand pieces.  Another twelve pounder went off when the man was in the act of ramming and took off both his hands about the wrist, this was owing to the gun getting very hot and the man at the vent having no thumb stool (stall).

The extraordinary bravery of a female drew the attention of all our garrison:  her name was Betsy Doyle, her husband was taken prisoner at Queenston in the fall under General Van Rensselaer.  She attended and served one of the guns with hot shot during the day of the cannonading.  She would take the ball tongs from any of the men, run to the fire, take up the hot shot, put it in the cannon, and run for another; this she continued for the whole of the day.  I mentioned this circumstance in my official letter to General Smyth.

Betsy’s Trek

In December of 1813, Fort Niagara fell to the British.  In a letter dated April 5, 1814 written by Colonel Simon Larned, Commander of Greenbush Cantonment, he stated the following account: “The day before the Enemy took the fort (December 19, 1813), she encouraged the militia who was rather timid, by putting on the dress and arms of a soldier and went on Guard and stood her turn through a very dark and rainy night. She, the next day, continued at her House until the Enemy British and Indians had almost surrounded her, when she fortunately escaped with four children, the eldest about 14.”

On December 19, 1813 Betsy and the children fled with whatever they had on their backs heading east to escape the British forces.  Having nowhere to go, certainly not to her in-laws in Canada, she headed to the hub of the US Army at Greenbush Cantonment…a 310 mile walk in the winter!


Betsy Arrives at Greenbush Cantonment

Betsy and three children (It is unknown at this time what happened to the fourth child) arrived at Greenbush Cantonment in April, 1814.   

She is listed in the “Return of Women in the Cantonment Greenbush Their Present Situation N Children.”  Betsy’s entry names her as “Mary Doyle”. 

After arriving at Greenbush Cantonment, it was evident the long winter trek had taken its toll on Betsy. Colonel Larned wrote: “She is now in my Kitchen and convalescing from a fever.  She appears to be an industrious and worthy woman.”  Betsy knew her husband, Andrew, was prisoner of the British and taken to England.  After the war ended she stayed on at Greenbush Cantonment working in the hospital and awaiting the arrival of her husband and, at one point, it was wrongly determined that Andrew had died in the harsh conditions of the British prison.

Andrew Doyle was never tried, however, and was released from prison in 1815 and returned to America; but he was unable to find Betsy.

The Known Fate of Betsy and Andrew

Andrew arrived back in the United States through Castle Island, Boston, MA on August 14th 1815. Unable to locate Betsy, he assumed she was dead.  On January 17, 1819, Andrew married Nancy Sherman of Connecticut.  Together they had a son and daughter.  Nancy Sherman Doyle died in Providence, Rhode Island on December 31, 1861 at the age of 81.  Andrew Doyle died on July 29, 1875 at the age of 87.

Betsy Doyle died at Greenbush Cantonment on April 2, 1819. In a letter written by Lt. Henry Smith of the 2nd US Infantry Regiment, Acting Post Commandant of Greenbush Cantonment to Brigadier General Daniel Parker on April 4, 1819 stating: “…You will perceive that Mrs. Doyle the nurse has not been paid in a year.  During the whole of that time she has been in the faithful discharge of her duty at this Post, and to my knowledge, nearly the whole of that time Maj. Worth, (late commandant here) has been endeavoring, by correspondence with Paymaster Albright, Dr. Le Baron, the Paymaster General plus others to procure it for her, in vain.  On Major Worth leaving the Post, I enclosed a copy the Muster rolls, A. to Surgeon General Lovell, stating the case plus requesting his attention to the business---Since then, nearly three months have elapsed and the Doctor has not favored me with an answer of any kind, nor attended, as I can hear to the business.  About a month since, Mrs. Doyle was confined by illness to her bed, and the day before yesterday she died and I am sorry to say, her death was accelerated by the want of those necessities which her pay would have procured—She left a daughter whose father (a soldier) is also dead and who is now left friendless on the world without any possible means of support and it is on her account I have to request your interference to procure, for her the pay so hardly earned and so justly owed her mother. ----Independent of the calls of humanity, duty compels me to make the above statement.